Part of the ensemble of Failure: A Love Story.
Photo courtesy Walden Theatre/Blue Apple.
Failure: A Love Story
By Philip Dawkins
Directed by Benjamin Park
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Failure: A Love Story is a unique play that offers an unusual degree of freedom to directors in how they choose to stage it. This is the second production of Philip Hawkins’ enigmatic script offered to Louisville audiences this season, and if director Benjamin Parks doesn’t fully realize the unorthodox potential of the material, he makes a brave and creative effort nonetheless.
The story is structured in a quirky manner, with an opening passage that eschews linear narrative to foreshadow the tragedy that visits the Fail family of Chicago in the 1920’s. After the parents are killed in a traffic accident, it is announced that the three daughters, Nelly (Gracie Taylor), Jenny June (Sabrina Spalding), and Gertrude (Meg Caudill), also will die within a few months of each other. Death is inevitable, but the device flies in the face of conventional wisdom by seeming to rob the narrative of suspense. But Dawkins builds a careful strategy of poetic empathy that connects with the audience in a meaningful way.
But his text is designed to be loose enough for any director to assign lines of the spoken narration. Mr. Park builds a chorus of five to carry the weight of exposition, and populates an ensemble to portray animals, clocks (the Fail family business is timepiece repair), and a gramophone (here a quintet of singers) that provides a soundtrack of period tunes. At time the stage seems overstuffed with bodies, sometimes moving in opposition to each other rather than harmony, a problem that could be somewhat alleviated if the movements were more tightly choreographed and executed.
Another choice is to take a light touch in establishing the period. Very little of the design work actually emulates the 1920’s. Instead there is a lot of bold color and short skirts that seem more representative of the 1960’s, with a few even more individual choices that support characterization. This aesthetic seems to work well enough in giving the production a specific identity, although it also seems to court inconsistency with a dash of randomness.
The casting puts Walden Theatre alumni and current students onstage together, a concept that is called “space teaching”, and which has taken on a new prominence in the company’s programming. The three sisters are played by alumni/instructors, and they are easily the strongest performances, but Will DeVary does very well as John, the adopted brother of the family. Eliot Zellers, who plays Fail sister paramour Mortimer Mortimer, is also an alumni, and he has good authority, although his hair and costume choices seem entirely of today. The Chorus members, Emma Pfitzer-Price, Zoe Greenwald, Anne Shook, Catherine Young, and Chase Bishop, are solid in their delivery, but the narrative ball feels tossed back and forth a little too often, and an occasional lack of clarity results, particularly in the early passages.
Ultimately, this version of Failure: A Love Story does the script no disservice, but the more subtle opportunities for lyrical expressiveness are missed. Still, it is a worthwhile interpretation filled with thoughtful choices and impressive young talent.
Failure: A Love Story
March 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, 12 @ 7:30pm
March 5 & 12 @ 2:00pm
Walden Theatre / Blue Apple Players
The Nancy Niles Sexton Stage
1125 Payne Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40206
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on ARTxFM/WXOX-LP, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.